The Truth About Benjamin Franklin’s Relationship With His Wife

“Founding Father,” “Inventor,” and “diplomat” are all terms usually applied to Benjamin Franklin. History seems to show that he was a success in almost every endeavor he entered into — almost. One dark spot in his life was his marriage. Nearing his mid-20s, Franklin sought to marry, not for love, but rather for society’s sake (via Benjamin Franklin Historical Society). He had dated a woman named Deborah Read, but after Franklin left to go across the ocean to Great Britain, she married a man named Roger Potter. That didn’t end well, as Potter absconded to the West Indies to escape paying some debts. 

Franklin swooped in and took Deborah as his common-law wife on September 1, 1730 — common-law so that, if Mr. Potter returned, neither one would be in violation of bigamy laws. Mr. and Mrs. Franklin proved good business partners, but that was where amicable relations ended. 

A child born, a child died, and a doomed marriage

Franklin was not the gushy, romantic type, but, prior to his marriage, he had an affair with the wife of a friend and ended up getting her pregnant. Franklin agreed to take in the child as his own. Along the way, Franklin came to see marriage as more of an act of business (via Smithsonian Magazine). Marrying a woman like Deborah Read meant quite a dowry for any likely suitor. Families were not quick to give dowries to men with an illegitimate child, but Deborah Read’s family was. 

Franklin was certainly grateful to be married, but treated his wife more like a roommate than a helpmate in life. They did consummate their marriage and have a child. Benjamin loved the child and his new role as a dad, but that did not mean he opened up to be more of a loving husband to Deborah. In the winter of 1731, a smallpox epidemic befell Philadelphia. As a scientist, Franklin took great interest in inoculating against the disease. He came to be regarded as the greatest promoter of smallpox inoculation in the British colonies. 

One problem, though — the couple’s only son was not inoculated, contracted smallpox, and ultimately died. This event profoundly saddened the Franklins. In public, Franklin himself took the blame for not inoculating Franky. It’s long been alleged that, in private, he labeled blame upon Deborah.

Public chivalry, private disdain

Franklin went from viewing Deborah as a great business partner, to blaming her for the problems of the business (via Smithsonian Magazine). On one occasion, a customer bought some paper from the Franklins’ business and Deborah forgot to mark down which kind of paper, meaning the customer could have gotten away with buying a high-quality paper for less than it was really worth. Franklin laid into Deborah for the error, deeming her careless. The inoculation issue was over, but Franklin let his anger boil over in other ways, and this is one example. 

On another occasion, Franklin wrote of her many good qualities but conspicuously left out any mention of her being a good mother, a slap in the face at the time. While Franklin was away from Deborah for over a decade, she sent him romantic letters but he only responded in terse replies. 

Much has been made of Franklin being a womanizer, especially in Europe. He flat out denied such rumors, claiming he was an honest husband, even if he was not a loving one.

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